The lasting effects of digital social media on physical and mental health, and by comparing it to its older analog sibling of face-to-face sociality, its effects are a subject area I've felt compelled to cover on multiple occasions throughout my public blog. But time after time, I need to come back to it because it has been a driving force behind many of the concerns I have about the future of humanity. I know this is a big claim, but the more I compare communications with friends via digital means versus the quasi-expectation of subscribing to their digital feed-of-life - the more I grow concerned that I have grown further and further detached from what it means to be a modern digital citizen in a modern digital world. In order to maintain friendships and relationships of all kind, are we expected to subscribe to their digital feeds? The endless photos, posts, statuses and reels that 'inform' what someone is doing with their life? There are, in my opinion, more negative ramifications for the use of digital social media than there are positive. Research on the negative effects of social media usage range from the 'fear of missing out' (FoMO), fatigue, stalking and online social comparison, with studies attempting to investigate the complex interrelationships amongst these phenomena1. Yet, our natural desire for human connection drives us into a negative space - an arguably 'fake' space covered in a veil of mystery, full of mistruth and curated by billionaire advertisers.
This isn't how we should socialise, and this isn't how social networks should operate in order for them to be useful. I'm going to dive into this topic in a way I've never done before on this blog. Actually, this is probably more of an essay.
Since my last post about this topic, a lot has changed in the social media space. Elon Musk purchased Twitter for an absurd amount of money - giving the billionaire complete control over a company "as crucial to human communication in the 21st century as Twitter has been and continues to be" and even though he had "nothing to do with Twitter's creation... stands to have far more power over its operations than any CEO of a public traded company2. Mastodon, an "open-source decentralised social network" as a result of Musk's constant reconfiguring of Twitter, experienced a massive jump in new users signing up to the service and is being touted as a Twitter alternative3. I saw this as a rare opportunity to dive into a new social network and see if it matches up to the user experience that Twitter had in the past.
And I think it does - but with caveats.
Mastodon's best feature is in its design; it is a decentralised network, meaning no individual owns all the hardware and software designed to run it. Better yet, different "instances" can communicate with each other. For example, my Mastodon username is "@firstname.lastname@example.org" - meaning I am using the instance "@mastodon.au" but I can follow users on other instances like "@mastodon.social" - one of the largest instances with the largest number of users. No individual can own, curate or control user feeds by design - and I love this. Its problem, however, is its lack of users. If Twitter users could flick a switch and start using Mastodon instead, its future would be bright. But although millions have signed up to the service (10,723,535 accounts at time of writing4), the most important accounts to follow on Twitter - public figures, official government accounts and businesses - have not made the mass-migration many had hoped to see. And this is its biggest problem.
The technology is there for the taking, for government accounts in particular. For example, "@primeminister@australiangovernment" could be a user account for the Prime Minister of Australia on an instance of Mastodon that would be instantly recognisable, trustworthy, and remain consistent across election cycles - allowing constituents to trust the feed of information coming from it. Governments need to be convinced that it is in their interest to maintain these kinds of accounts - but it is the user base that needs to grow to convince institutions that their constituents and stakeholders need a Mastodon presence.
Another major change that has occurred for my own social media usage is a return to Instagram. But to clarify, I did not return to Instagram because I missed or wanted to use it. The purpose of creating this account was an experiment to test four things:
- What advertisements will it serve me if I create a new account?
- What will I learn about the people I follow?
- Does it add value to my life?
- Do I need it to participate in society?
I'll address each of these separately. I could tell that the advertisements I received at first were not based on previous interaction with the app. The majority of initial adverts were for smartphone games. Interestingly, there weren't many adverts served up in the feed at first, and I could tell that the app was trying to learn what I would 'stop' scrolling my feed at. An advert for a pair of sunglasses, which I stopped scrolling for, began a barrage of sunglasses advertisements which continue through to this day. In my opinion, the frequency of adverts upon creating the account is curated to be low in order to make users think the app doesn't feature many advertisements, but I could tell this changed after a few weeks of using the app as the frequency of adverts rose substantially. This was noticeable within the 'reels' (short-video format) function of the app.
I began to follow a number of close friends that came to mind as soon as I installed the app again. I noticed that many of the things about my friends, to inadvertently quote the late Donald Rumsfeld, "that I knew I didn't know," became to fill my feed and reel. For example, friends creating art, moving house, getting engaged or preparing to get married, travelling and their hobbies and interests quickly filled my feed reminding me of what I had been missing out on in their respective worlds. This did indeed add value to my life because I knew there was a lot about my friends lives in recent time that I didn't know as a result of my self-imposed exile from social media. I learned that there were friends that I had in the past that, when we met, shared similar interests which had evidently drifted away from my own over recent months and years - no longer sharing the same interests today. I would argue that this similarly adds value to my life because I now have a better understanding of the make-up of my circle of friends today. If anything, departing from social media prevented me from advancing my own self-development by retaining the a status-quo from a few years ago; I had changed as a person and they had changed as a person, but from both of our perspectives of each other, nothing had changed at all. This leads to the final part of the experiment: Do I need it to participate in society?
In short, no. One of my biggest concerns with social media is in its creation of personal influence vulnerabilities that digital social media networks can generate5 (by more susceptible younger audiences in particular) as the digital world creates a closed loops and echo chambers of information tailored for an individual by a curation algorithm - "presenting content that interests [the user] and that fits their viewpoints or ways of thinking, establishing aversion towards the unfamiliar."6 The idea that a digital society is curated by billionaire gatekeepers of information and is reliant on advertising to exist implies that digital social systems must be a capitalist system in nature. However, social media has become a digital extension of the norms of our public milieu (the social environment around us in the public sphere) of capitalist life in the West that social media is almost expected to represent and recreate capitalist ideas whether they are necessary to the function of the network or not (such as with advertisements). On the other hand, digital social media as an extension for participation within a private milieu (the social environment around us in our personal lives) is a critical function and serves as a useful tool for our daily lives to keep in touch with the people important to us - a function relevant in our globalised world.
Where these two intersect, however, is not where I want to be, nor where I think social media is effective as a creator of and facilitator to digital information, and it's where I hope that social media will start to permanently change. It serves a purpose as a public good (like the internet as a utility in itself, like electricity, gas and water) and a private good in connecting people for the better. But the anti-social social media that exists today is not good for anyone but those who curate it and make billions off advertising under the guise that it is social.
The truth is, it isn't. The sooner more people see this, the better.
Tandon, A, Dhir, A, Talwar, S, Kaur, P & Mäntymäki, M 2021, ‘Dark consequences of social media-induced fear of missing out (FoMO): Social media stalking, comparisons, and fatigue’, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, vol. 171, pp. 120931↩
Levinson, P 2022, ‘The Explosive Growth Of Social Media: Trump, COVID-19, The Russian Invasion Of Ukraine, and Elon Musk’, Studia Humanistyczne AGH (Kraków), vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 13↩
Swogger, SE 2023, ‘The Interactive Web-Leaving Twitter’, Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 31↩
As published on Mastodon by bot account @email@example.com↩
Bruning, PF, Alge, BJ & Lin, H-C 2020, ‘Social networks and social media: Understanding and managing influence vulnerability in a connected society’, Business Horizons, vol. 63, no. 6, pp. 754↩
Fouquaert, T & Mechant, P 2022, ‘Making curation algorithms apparent: a case study of “Instawareness” as a means to heighten awareness and understanding of Instagram’s algorithm’, Information, Communication & Society, vol. 25, no. 12, pp. 1769↩